Venerable Toronto co-packer proud to wave the Canadian flag with a fast-selling brand of made-in-Canada ketchup produced on new state-of-the-art production line
August 22, 2017
by George Guidoni, Editor; Photos by Naomi Hiltz
Saying the only bad publicity is no publicity may be stating the obvious.
But that doesn’t make any less true, as the French’s brand of ketchup discovered a year ago after Canadian grocery giant Loblaw’s tried to pull the stuff off its store-shelves on the account of under-performing sales, or so they said.
True or not, the mere suggestion to do so instantly ignited a furious social media backlash among a multitude or patriotic Canadian consumers outraged that the country’s largest retailer would willingly de-list a product made entirely from Canadian-grown tomatoes.
And not just any tomatoes, mind you, but the ones harvested near and around Leamington, Ont., once famed as the unofficial ketchup capital of Canada on the account of a massive Heinz tomato processing plant that was the economic backbone of the
local farming-based communities.
With the highly publicized consumer outcry immediately resulting in soaring sales for the French’s ketchup brand, New Jersey-based brand-owner The French’s Food Company LLC , a division of U.K.-headquartered multinational consumer powerhouse Reckitt Benckiser Group plc, wisely decided to make good on its ‘Canada Promise’ strategy not only by reiterating its 100-percent Canadian origins, but also making the decision to produce and package it in Canada.
For Toronto-based Select Food Products Limited, that decision turned out to be the proverbial epic game changer that thrust the 75-year-old specialty foods producer from relative anonymity right into the upper echelons of the highly competitive condiments business.
“I got a call from French’s president Elliott Penner about a year ago saying they were looking for a co-packer to make the brand in Canada and asking if we would be interested in meeting to discuss possibilities,” recalls Select Foods’ youthful president
Andrew Mitchell, who acquired the company two years ago after working for the consulting division of leading professional services group Deloitte in Toronto.
“They were clearly interested in producing their product in Canada, for Canadian consumers, using made-in-Canada tomato paste, because they saw it as a competitive advantage,” Mitchell told Canadian Packaging on a recent visit to his company’s 100,000-square-foot production facility in the city’s east end. “So we invited them for a visit and they clearly liked what they saw and where we want to take the company.
“After many discussions, they decided to give us the French’s ketchup business on the understanding that we would make the necessary capital investment in new production and packaging equipment to enable us to produce the mass volumes they required,” Mitchell recalls.
After several months of commissioning and testing the new highly-automated line, Select Foods commenced the commercial production of French’s ketchup in earnest in May of this year, producing about 5,000 liters of the popular condiment per
Although Select Food has been making and co-packing mayonnaises, mustards, barbeque sauces, gravies, salad dressings and other condiments for decades, the new line represents the company’s first foray into ketchup production.
“In the past this plant also used to make some rather offbeat food products such as canned chicken, pigs’ feet, marinated cherries and olives and other lesser-known specialty foods,” says Mitchell, “but those products were phased out long before I took
over the company. Now we’re focused on condiments and building up our co-packing business.”
As Mitchell relates, being awarded the French’s ketchup business was something of a leap of faith by the brand-owner, so Select Food had little time to waste in getting down to business of install a new state-of-the-art production and packaging line dedicated to the French’s ketchup product to hold up its part of the bargain.
To set the stage for the new equipment, Select Food hired Kitchener, Ont.-based mechanical engineering experts Roberts Onsite Inc. to update and upgrade the plant’s outdated electrical, mechanical, plumbing, drainage, ventilation and other key
infrastructure pieces to the standards required for modern high-speed, high-output automated food manufacturing and packaging operations.
In the processing area of the plant, Select Foods worked with the Brampton, Ont.-based processing systems integrator Simmtech Process Engineering Ltd. to install two brand new 5,000-liter kettles, a heat exchanger and a cooler, a deaerator, a homogenizer, and a chilling system to cook and cool the raw tomato paste shipped to the plant in massive industrial totes in bulk from Leamington by Highbury Canco Corp., which took over the mothballed Heinz operations a couple of years ago.
It also worked with Clayton Industries and Custom Steam Inc. to install a new boiler system.
On the packaging side of things, Select installed a comprehensive range of new high-performance packaging equipment to package French’s ketchup—retailed in Original, Garlic and Buffalo flavor varieties—in the one-liter, 750-ml and 500-ml plastic
bottles supplied by Amcor Rigid Plastics of Ann Arbor, Mich., as well as the 1.5-liter and 375-ml plastic containers from Graham Packaging.
Expertly installed under the watchful eye of Select director of engineering and continuous improvement Ghalib Hendow, with technical assistance and on-site support provided by industrial conveying systems manufacturer Storcan International, the new packaging line comprises:
“It’s all a highly automated process that is completely new to this facility,” says Mitchell, “and it will provide a good roadmap for us in the future as we begin to automate our other lines and operations.”
That’s sweet music to the ears of Storcan Conveyors and Packaging Systems general manager Chris Hall, senior solutions specialist Hugo Lorquet and project manager Anthony Dirracolo, who worked tirelessly on the project to ensure its swift on-time execution.
“It was a very tight timeline to work with,” Hall recalls, “but at the end of the day Select Food was very pleased with the overall outcome of the project.
“We were able to successfully provide them with a complete working system—incorporating both new and used equipment—to handle their full array of bottle sizes,” he states.
In addition to integrating the entire new line from the depalletizing station on through the stretchwrapper and pallet conveyors, Storcan also provided all the required mechanical, electrical, civic and rigging services related to the project, while handling
all the related permit work.
According to Hall, it was ultimately all worth the extra time and effort.
“Select Food has been in business for many years and it has earned a great reputation in the industry,” he says, “and we were very product to be chosen to join them on this critically important project.
“Working with Select Food was a great experience on many levels,” he adds, “because both companies have a similar take on how to run a proper business.
“At Storcan we have a reputation of excellence and exceptional product quality,” Hall expands, “but we are also renowned for our commitment to customer service.
“From design and project management to installation, integration, customer service and technical support, customers can rely on our expertise and reliability,” he states, “and Select Food is a very special customer for us indeed.”
According to Mitchell, contract manufacturing and co-packing of retail consumer brands now accounts for about half of the company’s revenues.
About 30 per cent of the plant’s total output is shipped to foodservice operators under the Select foodservice brand label, he relates, and the rest to industrial clients in the food processing sector.
“All in all we make about 400 different SKUs (stock-keeping units), which range from huge plastic totes, drums, pails and jugs to small plastic and glass containers found on the store-shelves of your neighborhood grocers,” says Mitchell, noting that the one-liter plastic bottles of French’s ketchup are already the biggest single SKU produced at the 150-employee facility.
“We are now producing about 83 one-liter bottles of French’s ketchup per minute with the new line,” says Mitchell, “and more for the smaller sizes.”
As Mitchell relates, the new line also provides a wealth of production possibilities and operational flexibility because it can be easily changed over to other product types.
“We can easily put in another production shift or two as our demand volumes dictate,” says Mitchell, noting the HACCP (Hazard Analysis Critical Control Points)-certified plant, which also boasts the internationally-recognized SQF Level 2 certification of the Safe Quality Food Institute, co-packs a fairly extensive number of products popular with the Canadian consumers, including the PC Smokin’ Stampede BBQ’s barbecue sauces, Guy Fieri Steak Sauce, Newman’s Own salad dressings and barbecue sauces, and the Neal Brothers range of salsas, pasta sauces, mayonnaise and barbecue sauces, among others.
“We also have all the pertinent kosher, organic, non-GMO and other certifications to make us an attractive co-packing proposition for a broader client base,” Mitchell says.
“The condiments sector is an extremely competitive business,” notes Mitchell, “especially when dealing with the increasingly cost-conscious retailers.
“Just operating in Canada means having a higher cost base than many of our competitor,” he explains, “but there are also advantages of being closer to a good labor pool and the proximity to major highways to reach big consumer markets.
“There are a lot offsetting factors at play,” he expands, “but it manly comes down to us being on top or our game, which is what this new line is really about.
“We have no choice but to continue investing in more automated equipment to remain competitive and to attract more customers and get some volumes going,” Mitchell asserts.
“We have been good in the past in serving our small customers with smaller production runs, with a lot of starts/stops in between the changeovers,” he says.
“But it wasn’t a very efficient way of running the business. “This new line will enable us to streamline the number of customers we’re working with and to rationalize some of the under-performing SKUs out of our product mix,” Mitchell explains. “I am very impressed with the high caliber of automation incorporated into this line.”
Says Mitchell: “You really have to be a world-class manufacturer to be able to win a business for a brand like French’s ketchup, so this installation really validates our competence levels in both processing and packaging.
“There is quite of bit of innovation taking place in the industry right now with the flavor mixes, ingredient, organics, clean natural ingredients and so on, making it an exciting time to be in this business,” says Mitchell.
“The key for us is to work the right types of customers to help us drive our volumes,” says Mitchell, adding he aims to triple or quadruple the company’s sales in the near future.
“This will probably mean narrowing down our product portfolio from the 400 SKUs to substantially lower levels,” he acknowledges, “but we would be doing much longer production runs with much higher line efficiencies, which is all about producing more product with less manual labor.”
Despite the new line and well-trained, loyal and long-tenured workforce at the Select plant, Mitchell acknowledges there are still many areas at the plant that need to be improved to reach his lofty goals in revenue and market share gains.
That said, he seems genuinely confident that the company is on the right track to getting there.
“I really see us adding a second and even third shift to our production schedule down the road,” Mitchell reveals, “but we must first get the word out to the Canadian and U.S. markets about what we can offer them with our co-packing capabilities now.
“People can’t do business with you if they don’t know who you are,” he chuckles, “but having had this successful experience with the French’s ketchup line will definitely help to cast us in the best light with potential new customers.”
Says Mitchell: “In addition to making ketchup we also produce various types of salsa, salad dressings, mayonnaises, sauces, liquid beef gravies and many other fantastic products that help Canadian consumers make their food taste better and to enjoy a better meal experience—all made right here in Canada!
“So even though I am never entirely satisfied,” he sums up, “as a proud Canadian I find running Select Food Products a very satisfying way to make a living.”